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What are contact tracers? And how many each state needs to safely reopen

  • What are contact tracers? And how many each state needs to safely reopen

    As of May 20, every state in America has loosened the restrictions that governors and public health officials set to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecticut, the last state to begin re-opening, allowed outdoor dining spaces, offices, malls, and other spaces to begin seeing customers again on May 20.

    But are states prepared for the influx of COVID-19 cases that may result from renewed public gatherings? One method state and local governments can use to control disease outbreaks without severely interrupting daily life is called contact tracing. Contact tracing, while the term may sound like it belongs in a medical textbook, is in fact a low-tech strategy: trained health workers, called “contact tracers,” interview patients confirmed to have a disease and identify their close contacts (friends, family, coworkers, and so on). These contact tracers then call those contacts, inform the contacts that they have been exposed to a disease, help them get tested themselves, and, if necessary, help them acquire necessary resources to quarantine for two weeks.

    Through this careful communication work, people in a community who have been exposed to COVID-19 may be identified and isolated, while the rest of the community can safely continue going to work and shopping for groceries. In South Korea, for example, public health officials used GPS tracking, credit card transactions, and other data to put together an automated contact tracing system that alerted South Koreans with text messages when they had potentially been exposed to the coronavirus. This system, along with aggressive and easily available testing, helped the country quickly control its outbreak. On a smaller scale in the U.S., local health departments in places such as Anne Arundel County, Maryland have mobilized resources and taken advantage of local community knowledge to keep outbreaks under control. Anne Arundel County, which pulled school nurses out of furlough to train them as contact tracers, was able to fully track all cases in the county by the end of April.

    As the size and severity of COVID-19 outbreaks have varied greatly across the country, the size and severity of contact tracing strategies must vary in response. To examine needs in different regions, researchers at George Washington University’s Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity built a Contact Tracing Workforce Estimator. This tool uses recent COVID-19 case counts in every state and county to estimate how many contact tracers must be employed in each region to quickly call, interview, and reach out to contacts of anyone who contracts COVID-19. The researchers started with a baseline requirement of 15 contact tracers per 100,000 people, then adjusted the need for every region based on the number of new cases that region has seen in the past two weeks. The assumption here is that, if a state traces all its cases and has all infected residents quarantined within 24 hours of those cases being identified, it is safe to reopen for the rest of the population.

    In this story, Stacker lays out the baseline number of contact tracers needed and the number of contact tracers needed to address new cases in the past two weeks for every state, with the latter value based on new case counts between May 4 and May 18. We have also included the actual number of contact tracers employed in every state as of May 19, sourced from the public health data project Test and Trace. Finally, for additional context on the outbreak, we have included the total COVID-19 cases, tests, and fatalities in every state as of May 19, via the COVID Tracking Project.

    “For contact tracing to be successful,” says Dr. Candice Chen, an Associate Professor at George Washington University who works on the Workforce Estimator, “it really has to be a comprehensive approach.” She explains that interviewing patients is only the beginning; for the strategy to be successful, people exposed to COVID-19 must have the space and resources to self-isolate: “If people can’t stay home, in the end, you’re not actually containing anything.”

    Read on to find out how your state shapes up, and, for more data and resources at the state and county level, check out the Contact Tracing Workforce Estimator itself.

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  • Alabama

    - Baseline contract tracers needed: 763 (15.6 per 100,000 people)
    - Contract tracers needed to address all new COVID-19 cases from May 4 to May 18: 1,823 (37.3 per 100,000 people)
    - Actual number of contract tracers employed: 120 (2.4 per 100,000 people)
    - New COVID-19 cases, May 4 to May 18: 3,972
    - Cumulative state COVID-19 statistics as of May 19:
    --- Positive cases: 12,376
    --- Tests completed: 157,566
    --- Death toll: 504

  • Alaska

    - Baseline contract tracers needed: 127 (17.2 per 100,000 people)
    - Contract tracers needed to address all new COVID-19 cases from May 4 to May 18: 127 (17.2 per 100,000 people)
    - Actual number of contract tracers employed: 145 (19.8 per 100,000 people)
    - New COVID-19 cases, May 4 to May 18: 17
    - Cumulative state COVID-19 statistics as of May 19:
    --- Positive cases: 399
    --- Tests completed: 36,380
    --- Death toll: 10

  • Arizona

    - Baseline contract tracers needed: 1,083 (15.1 per 100,000 people)
    - Contract tracers needed to address all new COVID-19 cases from May 4 to May 18: 2,331 (32.5 per 100,000 people)
    - Actual number of contract tracers employed: 60 (0.8 per 100,000 people)
    - New COVID-19 cases, May 4 to May 18: 5,284
    - Cumulative state COVID-19 statistics as of May 19:
    --- Positive cases: 14,566
    --- Tests completed: 161,571
    --- Death toll: 704

  • Arkansas

    - Baseline contract tracers needed: 493 (16.4 per 100,000 people)
    - Contract tracers needed to address all new COVID-19 cases from May 4 to May 18: 869 (28.8 per 100,000 people)
    - Actual number of contract tracers employed: 200 (6.6 per 100,000 people)
    - New COVID-19 cases, May 4 to May 18: 1,367
    - Cumulative state COVID-19 statistics as of May 19:
    --- Positive cases: 4,923
    --- Tests completed: 93,701
    --- Death toll: 102

  • California

    - Baseline contract tracers needed: 5,960 (15.1 per 100,000 people)
    - Contract tracers needed to address all new COVID-19 cases from May 4 to May 18: 11,830 (29.9 per 100,000 people)
    - Actual number of contract tracers employed: 3,000 (7.6 per 100,000 people)
    - New COVID-19 cases, May 4 to May 18: 25,567
    - Cumulative state COVID-19 statistics as of May 19:
    --- Positive cases: 81,795
    --- Tests completed: 1,339,316
    --- Death toll: 3,334

     

  • Colorado

    - Baseline contract tracers needed: 887 (15.6 per 100,000 people)
    - Contract tracers needed to address all new COVID-19 cases from May 4 to May 18: 2,369 (41.6 per 100,000 people)
    - Actual number of contract tracers employed: 50 (0.9 per 100,000 people)
    - New COVID-19 cases, May 4 to May 18: 5,446
    - Cumulative state COVID-19 statistics as of May 19:
    --- Positive cases: 22,202
    --- Tests completed: 131,333
    --- Death toll: 1,224

  • Connecticut

    - Baseline contract tracers needed: 540 (15.1 per 100,000 people)
    - Contract tracers needed to address all new COVID-19 cases from May 4 to May 18: 3,637 (101.8 per 100,000 people)
    - Actual number of contract tracers employed: 400 (11.2 per 100,000 people)
    - New COVID-19 cases, May 4 to May 18: 8,273
    - Cumulative state COVID-19 statistics as of May 19:
    --- Positive cases: 38,430
    --- Tests completed: 185,520
    --- Death toll: 3,472

  • Delaware

    - Baseline contract tracers needed: 146 (15.1 per 100,000 people)
    - Contract tracers needed to address all new COVID-19 cases from May 4 to May 18: 1,101 (113.8 per 100,000 people)
    - Actual number of contract tracers employed: 100 (10.3 per 100,000 people)
    - New COVID-19 cases, May 4 to May 18: 2,554
    - Cumulative state COVID-19 statistics as of May 19:
    --- Positive cases: 8,037
    --- Tests completed: 44,132
    --- Death toll: 304

  • Florida

    - Baseline contract tracers needed: 3,232 (15.2 per 100,000 people)
    - Contract tracers needed to address all new COVID-19 cases from May 4 to May 18: 5,138 (24.1 per 100,000 people)
    - Actual number of contract tracers employed: 1,000 (4.7 per 100,000 people)
    - New COVID-19 cases, May 4 to May 18: 9,479
    - Cumulative state COVID-19 statistics as of May 19:
    --- Positive cases: 46,944
    --- Tests completed: 715,855
    --- Death toll: 2,129

  • Georgia

    - Baseline contract tracers needed: 1,657 (15.8 per 100,000 people)
    - Contract tracers needed to address all new COVID-19 cases from May 4 to May 18: 2,978 (28.3 per 100,000 people)
    - Actual number of contract tracers employed: 250 (2.4 per 100,000 people)
    - New COVID-19 cases, May 4 to May 18: 6,775
    - Cumulative state COVID-19 statistics as of May 19:
    --- Positive cases: 38,721
    --- Tests completed: 378,156
    --- Death toll: 1,664